One day soon, if we are lucky, a sufficient mass of voters will see through Donald Trump’s monkey business and identify it as a deadly threat to orderly government and American constitutionalism. Meanwhile, let us speak for a moment of “Trumpism” rather than the weird man who inspires it.
Like the McCarthyism of the early 1950s, a notable precedent, Trumpism may be defined as chronic misrepresentation and distortion, much of it created by a fixed contempt for veracity. Trumpism in its recent phase began with Trump’s insistence, grumpily abandoned late in the 2016 campaign, that Barack Obama is not a constitutionally eligible president. This fantasy, reinforced by Trump’s determination to erase Obama’s legacy, is patently animated by neurotic envy.
The latest fantasy, echoed by his stooge Rudolph Giuliani, is that this year’s off-year congressional elections are designed by the Democrats as a referendum on his impeachment. This idea assumes that the Democrats are a conspiratorial outfit capable of designing anything. It defies the established thrust of congressional elections — of which a former Speaker of the House pertinently observed that “All politics is local.”
Yes, national trends do sometimes weigh in. But in the staggering variety of congressional districts stretching from Manteo to San Francisco, impeachment has so far made no appearance — and won’t, unless the Democrats become even more inept. This new Trump neurosis draws a shade of credibility from one billionaire’s premature TV crusade, though it wears no party brand. It does fit Trump’s usual prepossession with the Mueller investigation and the Russian connection and is comparable to his notion that the FBI is a domestic spy agency.
McCarthyism also battened on deliberate falsification. It too was a menace to orderly government. Joseph R. McCarthy was a loutish alcoholic mediocrity from Wisconsin who exploited national anxieties created by Stalin’s post-World War II subversion of democracy across eastern and central Europe.
A complementary factor was fear of communist espionage, although the U.S. Communist Party was thoroughly infiltrated by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. From these two factors, however, McCarthy and his imitators managed to weave a 4-year reign of disorder that collapsed only when the senator challenged the Army and thus the enmity of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Then as now, congressional Republicans, having won control on Eisenhower’s coattails, gave McCarthy command of a minor housekeeping committee (Government Operations) and ignored his mischievous abuse because it was reckoned to be injurious to Democrats. Then as now, old friends abroad thought we had lost our wits. As one Republican senator put it, McCarthy “donned his warpaint and returned with the scalp of a pink Army dentist” — a refreshing grasp of the essential triviality of his working methods. It was a fascinating but discreditable episode of American political history, told and retold in many books. There had been nothing quite like it until January 2017, when Trump began to claim the largest inaugural audience in the history of the Republic and asserted that millions of his popular votes had been stolen. He named a committee to identify the theft, which was quietly disbanded when it came up empty-handed. It has been downhill from there.
The salient difference — amid similar subversions of political norms and daily assaults on truth — is that McCarthy was merely one isolated senator. In Eisenhower, he faced a president of vast prestige who could assemble the resources to end McCarthy’s sordid ascendancy with the help, incidentally, of a freshman senator from North Carolina named Sam J. Ervin Jr. McCarthyism fell short of permanently warping government itself, and its instigator was a drunken bully. We may be less fortunate this time. Trump himself controls the presidency.
There is suggestive evidence that Trumpism is driven by significance disturbances of character and perhaps of mind. If voters fall for the absurdity that a congressional election is a referendum on an as yet undefined impeachment and an underhanded conspiracy, Trumpism could outlast its predecessor — at least until he threatens “fire and fury” ( nuclear war) against “Little Rocket Man” once too often or begins swinging on an East Room chandelier in the presence of the little men in white coats.